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Delaware Valley Student Affairs Conference

Keynote address by President John A. Fry, February 17, 2012

Good morning. Thank you so much for inviting me to speak today. It’s a really important conversation that you’re having about how best to serve all of our students, and I’m honored to be a part of it.

I’m also glad to be back in the higher education hotbed of the Delaware Valley. I had an incredible eight years at Franklin & Marshall in Lancaster. I’m very proud of what my team accomplished there, and I’ll talk a bit about that later. It’s a wonderful institution that continues to be a leader among national liberal arts colleges.

Colleges and universities in the Delaware Valley, and in University City where I now work, have the potential to do amazing things. The energy for higher education here is as strong as it is anywhere in the nation.

We have a regional academic ecosystem that I think can compete in quality and innovation with any other place in the nation. That includes Cambridge, Research Triangle or anywhere else.

And though our institutions are competitors in a narrow sense, we can and must work together to strengthen that ecosystem. There are huge benefits for all of us to be part of a community of colleagues. That’s why it’s great to know that conferences like this are taking place, bringing together colleagues from across the region and all levels of our organizations.

I salute you for creating opportunities to learn from each other and share ways to enhance the student experience. Even more important, I salute you for all the wonderful work you do in one of the most critical roles in higher education.

Most college presidents have strong ideas for the type of community we want to foster. That depends to some extent on the character of the institution, of course. But most of the critical qualities of a great community transcend individual colleges and universities.

I see these qualities addressed throughout the agenda of your conference today. That just highlights how much we depend on student affairs professionals to help our institutions and our students reach their full potential.

As educators, we want to encourage and reward leadership. I know that many of you are doing great work on programs that identify the leaders among our students, and find the leadership potential in everyone.

We want accepting, inclusive communities that value all members—black, white, Hispanic, Asian and Native American, straight and LGBT, traditional and nontraditional, on campus, off campus or online. You are the experts at navigating those sometimes difficult waters.

We also want safe communities that are intolerant of sexual violence and hostile environments, and offer alternatives to alcohol and drugs. I know you put your heart and soul into those issues.

Our academic leaders strive to create the best classroom experience possible.  We want it to be rigorous, creative, tied to the real world of work.

But the college experience goes so far beyond the classroom. And students are judging us on the whole package. They want programming that supports their educational goals and helps them develop a broad, empathetic perspective. They expect fairness, convenience and predictability in their interaction with university systems and processes. They want to know that someone will be there for them in difficult times, and that we want them to succeed.

In those matters, the student’s greatest ally is the student affairs professional. You play a critical role in making sure your institutions fulfill their missions.

And though I mentioned student affairs and academic affairs as separate entities a moment ago, that’s really a false dichotomy. Student affairs professionals teach every day. That’s in addition to the counseling, coaching and mentoring you do.

You teach students the leadership skills that will be just as important to their future success as what they learn in the classroom. You share important knowledge about how to deal with our multicultural and global society. You teach them about healthy lifestyles, and about how to know themselves and get the most out of themselves.

The great thing about student affairs is the potential to go home at the end of every week knowing you’ve made a meaningful difference in the lives of students.

I have some firsthand experience about the work you do, because working with students is one of the best rewards of my job. But let me start closer to home.

I’m the parent of a highly motivated and fully engaged college student. My daughter Mia is a junior at Williams College. She is a member of the women’s varsity squash team at Williams, just started an online literary journal with two close friends and tutors children from the local public school. Her rich experience at Williams reinforces my belief that co-curricular programming is just as important as classroom study to the development of a young person.

Second, as an undergraduate at Lafayette College I served as a Resident Advisor and as student government president. I had the opportunity to work with some great student affairs professionals who helped instill in me my love for the work of a liberal arts college. It is because of them that I chose this profession, and without them I know would not be standing before you today.

I am an example of how a student affairs professional can inspire a young person to go out and do something big with their life. Ever since, throughout my career in higher education, I’ve kept in mind that every student has unique needs, and each individual has to be treated as a priority. I’m paying back Lafayette every time I do this.

Whoever’s sitting across from you needs to be the most important person at the university at that moment. Every student needs to be heard. Sometimes that’s enough. Many times, of course, it’s not, but that listening always has to be the starting point.

To try to help me remember that, I hold regular office hours for students at Drexel, as was my practice at F&M. During those sessions, I might hear ideas that could make a real impact on the institution. Or I might just listen to one student’s concerns, help to smooth a point of friction for her with the University, and ultimately help her stay on track for a successful student experience. Either way, that face-to-face contact and listening is critical.

Of course, your challenges go beyond just lending an ear.  They include some of the most difficult situations we face on a college campus. Sometimes, they are matters of life and death.

For example, I know that all of our institutions work incredibly hard to understand the mental health issues facing any population of college-aged people. We did that before Virginia Tech, to be sure.  But that horrible tragedy made the stakes crystal clear.

I’m sure that some of you lay awake nights, thinking about how to stay at least one step ahead of a student in crisis. This is hard work, but work that is worth doing.

You’re also dealing with a complicated world of Title IX compliance on issues of sexual violence and hostile environments. And as last year’s “Dear Colleague” letter from the Office for Civil Rights made clear, the stakes in that realm can be as high as your school’s Federal funding.

On all these important challenges, one thing I want to encourage you to do is make all of us your allies—faculty, senior administrators, professional staff members in all parts of the organization.

Student affairs professionals can act as a key resource for anyone on campus who might see a student acting differently, or hear about a student’s problem with alcohol or violence. If we’re all educated in what to look for and what to do, we can share responsibility for these critical issues. Remember that we all have the same goal – vibrant, close-knit, caring communities.

So I mentioned a little bit about myself and my background. Let me just talk a bit more, for those of you who don’t know me, about my experience and how it influences my thinking about student affairs.

I came to higher education leadership from an unusual direction. After Lafayette and evening studies at NYU, I began my career as a management consultant. Soon I found myself working in higher education, and I found it fascinating.

I had the opportunity to work with some of the nation’s best schools and nonprofits at KPMG Peat Marwick, and eventually as a partner at Coopers & Lybrand. Ultimately I became partner-in-charge of their national higher education practice.

In 1994, we took on as a client the University of Pennsylvania, who shortly thereafter appointed a new president, Judy Rodin. I knew it was a great new relationship for the firm. Little did I know that it would change the course of my life.

I had the pleasure of getting to know Judy as I helped with her presidential transition. I quickly became a huge admirer and an ardent student of hers.

One project we undertook was the search for a new executive vice president for Penn. This was an important position that would have oversight over a huge range of critical initiatives at Penn.

One day, I took a call from Judy expecting she’d tell me whom she had chosen. Instead, she shocked me by asking me, a totally inexperienced 34-year-old, to apply for the job. She had to talk me into it, because it was totally outside my comfort and competence zone, but it was the best move I ever made.

Every day, I try to remember the lesson she taught me when she hired me—seek out talent wherever you may find it, trust your instincts and create an environment for young and untested people to contribute and succeed. A successful student affairs program will do much the same with the young people who come into our orbit each year.

At Penn, I had the good fortune to be involved in the development of the “Agenda for Excellence,” our comprehensive set of strategic initiatives. Early on, I realized that decay in the West Philadelphia neighborhood where Penn’s campus is located had become one of the greatest challenges to creating a successful student experience.  It was also a great challenge to the people living in the neighborhood.

The university was not exempt from blame for the situation. We had not taken responsibility for our own impact on the neighborhood.  The large student renter population west of campus had created a disincentive for owner occupancy. The instability of a neighborhood dominated by absentee landlords was a huge obstacle to real change
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What we needed to do, and what we did, was to build a coalition of business, neighborhood and government stakeholders to address, in a comprehensive way, the problems in the neighborhood. We created the University City District, a wonderful organization that’s still active and working to build great neighborhoods.

For Penn’s part, we put a program in place encouraging faculty and staff to buy homes and live in the neighborhood. To support that effort, we worked with the school district to create the Penn Alexander School, one of the best public schools in Philadelphia, for the neighborhood.

Pretty quickly, we saw the crime rate decline and property values begin to rise. But what happened next was even more important—we began to see real money, ultimately hundreds of millions of dollars, invested privately in commercial infrastructure and other development projects in West Philadelphia.

That’s ultimately the goal of so many of our efforts at every level of college and university administration—to get others to believe in what we believe so strongly, and to invest with us in those endeavors. In that case, getting everyone to believe in a common cause helped create change that improved the student environment at Penn, Drexel and University of the Sciences, and contributed to the ongoing success of all those institutions.

In 2002, I had the honor of becoming the 14th president of Franklin & Marshall College and heading off to Lancaster.

Now Lancaster is of course a very different place than Philadelphia, but that doesn’t mean all of our challenges were significantly different. We still needed to make sure that our growth and change solidified the neighborhood and city, rather than undermining it. We needed to draw students back to campus, which we did by creating a robust system of faculty-led and student-governed college houses. And we needed to be the catalyst for economic development in the city of Lancaster.

Once again, the key was partnership with a wide variety of stakeholders. We didn’t shy away from big projects either.

We undertook, along with Lancaster General Hospital and Norfolk Southern Railroad, what came to be known as the Northwest Gateway Project. That project is remaking 13 city blocks of formerly industrial land into new development featuring housing, college and hospital campuses and private retail and office space. It’s a remarkable undertaking by an entire community, and I’m very proud of my role in it. It’s also the perfect example of the unique ability of the eds-and-meds sector to drive economic development at a large scale.

That ability is something I’m looking to capitalize on now that I’m back in the Delaware Valley and University City, at Drexel. I think Drexel’s the perfect place to do it.

We’ve got a reputation for entrepreneurship and risk taking. Our students, many of them drawn by the nation’s best co-op program, fit right into that profile.

In the decade before me, Taki Papadakis, who was my good friend and a mentor, led Drexel through some of the boldest moves made by any university in the nation.

He helped save the city’s most historic medical school from bankruptcy, taking it into the Drexel fold. Today, the very successful Drexel University College of Medicine is the largest private educator of medical students in America.

Not long afterwards, Drexel started from scratch a law school in the true University spirit. The Earle Mack School of Law is dedicated to educating attorneys who have the real-world experience to practice law immediately, in today’s most critical fields.

These were incredible achievements, the type that boost not just a university’s reputation but the economic potential of our region. Those accomplishments and others led me to believe that Drexel has the ability to make an economic impact of major, perhaps unprecedented proportions. And if we have the ability to do it, in my opinion, then we have the responsibility to do it.

I think that an urban university has a great advantage of place. We have so many cultural, lifestyle and entertainment assets in the city to help us attract and retain students.  We have a tremendous well of educational and research partners to draw on in Philadelphia’s vibrant business, nonprofit and government sectors.

Given those advantages, I think we are obligated to use our strengths to make the city and our neighborhoods more prosperous. And I think that’s true for those of you in the city, those in college towns, in the suburbs, anywhere.

None of our campuses exists in a vacuum, and if they did, our students would be worse off for it.
So unlocking our full economic development potential as an urban university is one of a list of priorities I’ve set for Drexel, priorities that more often than not have implications for our student affairs infrastructure.

Another, related priority is to make Drexel the most civically engaged university in the nation across all dimensions of engagement including academics, student and employee voluntarism and institutionally supported neighborhood investment.

There are many reasons for growing our already significant culture of community- and neighborhood-related activities. On a practical level, the future of Drexel and our community are inextricably bound together. A stronger Drexel helps anchor the community. An attractive and appealing community gives Drexel a big competitive advantage.

Second, a commitment to our surrounding community helps animate the service dimension of our mission, giving it real importance. I also believe Drexel has a moral obligation to our community.

Finally, our highest purpose as a University is to educate and prepare leaders. We do this in part by engaging them in meaningful civic activities, and letting them learn firsthand the joys and frustrations of public service.

From a student affairs perspective, I hope we can agree that civic engagement makes students thrive.

At Drexel, civic engagement is part of the curriculum. But if it wasn’t, I know our students would clamor for it. They have a hunger for interaction with the community, in fact a hunger to be A PART of the community.

Many of them arrive on campus having been involved in service projects since they were children. So they are a great resource for us as we try to meet our obligation to our communities.  Rather than us educating our students about the importance of service, I think the reality is actually that they bring to US an energy that makes a whole host of things possible in the community.

We have to help them connect to opportunities, but even more important, we should cultivate a system whereby their own ideas can easily be converted to opportunities. Because I know their ideas are as good as ours, often better.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from civic engagement in some ways is another Drexel priority—to grow the scope and influence of the online education we offer.

Drexel built on our early adoption of online learning platforms to build one of the strongest e-learning brands from any university primarily based on bricks and mortar. And like many of you, we’re still wrestling with the implications of having this community of students that seldom or never sets foot on campus.

Does that mean that you guys are off the hook? I wish it were that easy. But it’s still critical that our online students have a satisfying student experience. It’s just more difficult.

I have to say with pride that we’re doing a pretty good job of it at Drexel. Our Office of Student Life won two 2011 NASPA awards for their work to increase the engagement of students in online and blended programs. Some of the tools they use include an Online First-Year Experience Program, a series of online workshops for student success and the webcasting of some popular on-campus seminar offerings.

I am sure that some of you are involved in coming up with a new generation of ideas to engage this new generation of students. I look forward to seeing what you do.

One more Drexel priority I’ll discuss that has a definite student affairs dimension is a focus on expanding our footprint as a global institution. This involves research and policy initiatives. But it also depends on robust student-focused programs.

We want to have an international community on campus, and so we must attract a diverse and talented group of students from around the world. And once we have those students, we must make sure that we offer them a supportive environment, and that we facilitate cultural exchange with our American-born students.

This was one of the reasons why Drexel, with a generous gift from a donor, established the James Marks Intercultural Center. It brings together people of different nationalities, different faiths and different cultures in mutually beneficial programming.

Another critical component of a global commitment is connecting our students to great experiences in other countries. Study abroad has a long and storied tradition. But the true value may be in more immersive experiences.

At Drexel, we’re working hard to expand the international component of our signature co-op program, so we can send more students abroad to gain real work experience in international businesses and organizations. This offers a number of logistical and financial challenges of course.

Our co-op traditionally is a financial boon to our students. But the costs involved in working overseas, coupled with the state of the economy, has resulted in a need to fundraise to help us broaden the range of experiences we can offer.

Ultimately, our goal is to have most of our students include at least one international job in their three co-op cycles. I think that would be a remarkable way to prepare our graduates for the global economy.

Because, ultimately, that’s what we’re all doing, and what you excel in—preparing students not for what we knew as young professionals yesterday, not even for what’s out there today, but for what’s coming tomorrow.

And I’m not just talking about careers, or graduate study, but about life. We can and must help our students to be good professionals, good family men and women, good citizens and good people.

That’s why I’m glad we have such a great community of student affairs professionals in the Delaware Valley. Because of you, I’m confident we’re doing right by our students.

Thank you.